Gemini Man and the ugly problem with high-frame-rate cinema
Two-time Oscar winning director Ang Lee is continuing his devout pursuit of high-frame-rate cinema with the release of Gemini Man, an action thriller starring Will Smith. The film, shot in 4K digital 3D at 120 frames per second, is both an awful movie and an ugly technological experience. Is high-frame-rate cinema a technological cul-de-sac, or is it a bracingly new visual aesthetic we just need to get used to?
Around a century ago there was no single hard and fast rule over what speed film should be projected at. Hand-cranked cameras and projectors resulted in constant inconsistencies and disagreements between filmmakers and projectionists. It was generally agreed that at least 16 frames per second was necessary for an effective simulation of motion. Any slower and the human eye began to recognize a kind of visual stutter.
Thomas Edison infamously declared in the late 19th century that film should be ideally recorded and projected at 46 frames per second. His argument was “anything less will strain the eye,” and his Kinetograph in 1889 ran at a speed of 40 fps.
The advent of sound in the 1920s required film to find some kind of uniform projection speed. At the time theaters generally screened films at rates spanning 20 to 26 fps, so 24 fps was ultimately chosen in an effort to find a compromise. The speed wasn’t ideal, there is clear motion blur at that frame rate when fast movement occurs, but any faster and films would simply utilize too much celluloid to be cost effective.
For much of the 20th century the 24 fps standard wasn’t questioned. Audiences were used to it, in fact the gentle flicker of a projector became fundamentally intertwined with the hypnotic magic of projected film. However, as televisions and home entertainment displays evolved, audiences started to engage with higher frame rates, often without even realizing it.
Most modern video games, for example, have been designed to run at 60 fps, and many TV or computer displays are equipped with refresh rates capable of displaying 120 fps and higher.
The advent of high-frame-rate cinema
Back in the 1990s no one could have guessed Ang Lee would eventually become one of the most technologically progressive filmmakers in Hollywood. After making several wonderful character-based dramas in his native Taiwan, Lee moved to America and directed a number of well-received films (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain). Although his success with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and his failure with 2003’s Hulk, demonstrated an interest in genre filmmaking, it wasn’t until 2012’s The Life of Pi that Lee showed a compulsion to push the technological limits of cinema.
The Life of Pi is still, to this day, one of the more interesting artistic uses of modern 3D technology, and Lee’s subsequent film, 2016’s Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, was the filmmaker’s first experiment with high-frame-rate cinema. A consequence of cinema’s transition to digital technology over the past 20 years has been a liberation from the traditional 24 fps model of the past century. Digital cameras can record data easily in a variety of resolutions and frame rates, while digital projectors are much more flexible in how they display material.
Peter Jackson’s initial Hobbit film in 2012 was the first Hollywood production to present audiences with high-frame-rate technology. It is fair to say the 48 fps 3D presentation was not received kindly. The enhanced visual detail made the film look cheap, like a 1990s soap opera shot on digital video. Advocates of high-frame-rate cinema went back to the drawing board and it wasn’t until 2016 that Ang Lee resurrected the technology.
Lee’s 2016 experiment wasn’t much more successful or well-received. While he pushed the tech to its limits, shooting in a 3D, 4K, 120 frames-per-second format, the film was technologically ahead of its time and barely screened anywhere in the world in its intended form. Critics who saw the film in its ultimate 4K 3D 120 fps format were not kind, and many wondered whether the problem was simply the “shock of the new,” or whether higher frame rates were fundamentally wrong for cinematic storytelling.
Lee is undeniably devoted to the technology. He sees it as a truly modern digital aesthetic, and in interviews he constantly espouses it to be the future of cinema.
“I’ll continue to chase the aesthetic of digital cinema,” said Lee. “It has an aesthetic that’s worth grasping. We’ve been imitating film and that’s not right. You can use it as a reference, but it’s a different medium.”
Gemini Man is not the future of cinema
Gemini Man is Lee’s latest attempt to convince audiences high frame rates are the future of cinema, and unfortunately he fails to make a convincing case. While only 14 cinemas in the United States will actually be delivering Lee’s 120 fps 3D vision, even those theaters are only able to screen the film in 2K and not the higher resolution 4K version. The vast majority of high-frame-rate screenings of the film will only be projected at 60 fps.
At 60 fps the film is certainly not a good argument for the future of cinema. Gemini Man for the most part looks ugly, cheap, and disconcertingly crisp. From a simple technological perspective, 3D in a high frame rate is gorgeously smooth. Even at half of Lee’s ideal projection rate the extra frames render the smoothest 3D motion this writer has ever seen. And on top of that, the high frame rate certainly reduces eye strain, so those prone to headaches induced by long 3D experiences need not worry.
The extra visual detail delivered by the high-frame-rate technology sadly works against the film instead of for it. While Lee and other high frame rate advocates suggest extra detail equals extra immersion, they frustratingly forget that hyperrealism doesn’t equate to believability. In fact, what Gemini Man ironically affirms is that distance and artifice may actually be fundamental to an audience’s engagement with a film.
Many shots and scenes in Gemini Man are presented with an almost unsettlingly complete depth-of-field. This means every object in the frame, be it near or far, is often in perfect, crisp focus. In tandem with the 3D presentation this quite reasonably makes it feel like a scene is playing out right in front of you. But this aesthetic is profoundly jarring, forcing the viewer to engage with the film in a way that is entirely alien to anything one has experienced before.
“Back in the late 1990s and 2000s, filmmakers and engineers expended quite a bit of effort trying to solve this digital video problem,” explained film critic Bilge Ebiri when trying to understand why Lee’s last high-frame-rate experiment in 2016 didn’t feel right. “There is a reason why we need the film effect, the so-called “flicker” of cinema (even if it’s not an actual flicker anymore). Look at the way we refer to movies as 'dreams' or talk of their 'magic.' The base unreality of motion pictures is critical to their impact. It seeps into the storytelling, the dialogue, the performances, the framing …”
In some ways Lee may be correct in saying high-frame-rate cinema is almost a completely different medium to classic 24-fps filmmaking. There are singular fleeting moments in Gemini Man where glimpses of something stunningly new can be snatched. A shot from underwater looking up reveals a surreal sense of drowning, or a point-of-view perspective on a motorcycle hurtling down a narrow alleyway genuinely conveys an unusual sense of speed. These moments suggest the technology can deliver bracingly new and exciting visions. But, on the other hand, a number of stupefyingly ugly and bland scenes depicting people chatting in offices and lounge rooms are constructed using conventional cinema techniques – and they look awful.
This will not be the last we see of high-frame-rate cinema. James Cameron is delivering his upcoming torrent of Avatar sequels in a high frame rate, although it is unclear at this stage whether he is working with 48, 60, or even higher frame rates. Maybe for Cameron the technique will work. A completely computer-generated environment could benefit from such an alien hyperreal aesthetic. As it stands, high frame rates are only for those that absolutely love the motion smoothing setting on television sets, and Gemini Man should only be seen by those wanting to experience a weird technological cul-de-sac that has yet to find its true use.